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WHO Called on Hoarding H5N1 Sequences
March 2, 2006
On 16 February, Ilaria Capua of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie in Italy asked more than 50 colleagues around the world to release all sequence data for the H5N1 avian influenza strain into the public domain. Comparing sequence data from every H5N1 isolate as soon as they become available is crucial for understanding how the virus moves and evolves, Capua argues.
H5N1 has been rapidly moving and evolving, and Ilaria Capua is to be commended for her call to release the data, as noted in the comments above from today's news in Science. The Science article goes on to describe the private sequence database that is maintained by WHO and passwrod accessible by 15 labs worldwide.
Although this database has the most current H5N1 sequence data, the WHO analysis of the data leaves much to be desired. WHO repeated states that H5N1 evolves via random mutation, and such mutations are not predictable. However many Recombinomics commentaries have cited clear cut examples of recombination.
The number of examples were expanded today when GenBank released data on H5N1 isolates from China. The sequences have not been published, but researchers in Beijing released the 7 sets of 8 full sequences under the title "A cohort of AIV H5N1 subtypes isolated from wild aquatic birds and domestic poultry revealed rapid transmission, frequent reassortment, and identifiable recombination events"
The sequences have clear examples of recombination which WHO and consultants refuse to acknowledge, even when their sequences have obvious recombination. In several instances the recombination is not as obvious because regions where recombination is expected are not submitted. These partial submissions raise serious questions about the omitted data.
In addition to the questions that arise from partial sequences, the withholding of completed sequences is cause for concern. Russia, Italy, France and Germany have recently submitted sequences shortly after completion and prior to publication. The China sequences showing recombination were also released prior to publication. Analysis of these sequences show rapid evolution via recombination, which WHO and consultants fail to acknowledge. The sequences also show origins of the newly acquired polymorphisms, which lead to past and future spread of H5N1 via migratory birds. The sequences identify human and American sequences in the Qinghai strain of H5N1 isolated in Astrakhan, and can been use to correctly predict future recombinations, such as the S227N acquisition in Turkey, or the possible G228S acquisition in Europe.
In Europe many of the new sequences have been generated at Weybridge, which has placed a hold on release until publication. This, could take weeks or months since the papers with the sequences have not been submitted. Similarly, there are no human H5N1 sequences available from Indonesia, although WHO consultants in Hong Kong had the data months ago. In the Science paper, Yi Guan said he would consider release if WHO changed its policy.
In many instances the sequences were generated with public funds used to collect samples from patients or animals. Public Health labs also frequently do the sequencing.
The hoarding of these sequences by WHO is hazardous to the world's health, and these sequences should be made public immediately.